Living with Criticism

One of my favorite personalities in church history is English evangelist George Whitefield (1714-1770). He was one of the finest preachers the church has ever known. However, that does not mean he was not without his critics. He was not really concerned about them, because he was more interested in pleasing God. At one point, Whitefield received a vicious letter accusing him of some wrongdoing. His reply was brief and courteous. He wrote:

I thank you heartily for your letter. As for what you and my other enemies are saying against me, I know worse things about myself than you will ever say about me.

With love in Christ, George Whitefield

I have been criticized many times, and so have you. There is no escape. However, how you handle being criticized says a great deal about your spiritual maturity. That is why our scripture reading speaks to us.

We find ourselves in the first four verses of the eleventh chapter of Acts, plus verse eighteen. When we last left Peter, the church was a happy place. The Holy Spirit was moving, and the church was growing. New converts were being welcomed, including Gentiles. There was really nothing to complain about, but this is the church. Someone must complain. I have never been in a church that was complaint free. Drama has been part of church from the very beginning.

According to the text, Peter returned to Jerusalem. His spirits must have been high. After all, everyone wants a growing church, or do they? According to verse three, he is greeted by some negative voices. The author describes them as circumcised believers. We would call them “completed Jews”. They want to know why he had broken a long-standing rule, associating with Gentiles. Peter defends himself by simply telling the truth. In the verses between our reading for today, Peter tells them exactly what happened. It is the story we looked at in my previous blog. God summons a Gentile, Cornelius, to Peter. When he arrives, he tells the group about Jesus, and before the end of the day they are all converted. It is God who welcomed these Gentiles into the church by the sending of the Holy Spirit. There is not much to say. If God is for it, then who can be against it? Verse eighteen says it clearly, “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.’” The complainers were defused, and the ministry continued. I wish, I handled all my criticizers so easily.

I fell in love with this story the first time I read it. The point of the story was painfully clear. Peter was one of the greatest figures in the church. Just think of everything he did for God. He followed Jesus for three years and experienced the Master firsthand. He was part of the inner circle, so he received special instruction. He was bold enough to get out of the boat and walk on the water for a few precious steps. He announced to the world for the very first time that Jesus was the Messiah. It was Peter who ran to the tomb on Easter morning to witness it for himself. It was Peter who spoke to the crowd before the winds of Pentecost blew. It was Peter who spoke to another crowd after the winds blew. It was Peter who healed the cripple. It was Peter who welcomed the Gentiles. Peter did so much; Peter was so much. If there is anyone who does not deserved to be criticized it was Peter. But, in the story for today, Peter was criticized by people who had done nothing notable at all.

It is not just true of the church; it is true in life. Everyone gets criticized. That is what makes being a position of authority so difficult. Let me ask you this series of questions.

1. Have you ever criticized your doctor for some oversight?

2. Have you ever criticized your local school board for not doing it your way?

3. Have you ever criticized a politician for being out of touch?

4. Have you ever criticized a professional athlete or celebrity for being themselves?

5. Have you ever criticized your minister for not being there at the right time?

6. Have you ever criticized God for the condition of our world?

It is my experience that people in positions of authority have grown deaf to all the criticism. They know what we are trying to deny. Just admit it, like or not, everyone gets criticized. Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) once said, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” The goal is not to eliminate criticism. The goal is handling criticism well. How well do you handle criticism? You and Peter have something in common. You have both been criticized.

Did you know the idea of the employee suggestion box started in Japan in 1721? That means it is 301 years old. Did you know, according to the NASS, the National Association of Suggestion Systems, only 3% of American companies have a suggestion box? I wonder why there aren’t more, because those companies who use suggestion boxes have saved two billion dollars. Could it be 97% of American companies don’t have suggestion boxes because they don’t want to open themselves up for criticism? How open are you to criticism? I hope you are not like 97% of American companies. I hope you are open to criticism because constructive criticism can make you a better person.

Here are three things you need to know the next time you are criticized.

  1. The next time you are criticized, evaluate the source. There are some people you want to listen to and some you don’t. Just because they have an opinion doesn’t make them an expert. You would be a fool to take advice from a fool. You would be a fool to listen to everyone.
  • The next time you are criticized, evaluate your core values. That is what Peter did in today’s story. He was more concerned with pleasing God than man. Everyone’s core values are different. Did your action support your core values? In other words, who are you trying to please?
  • The next time you are criticized, evaluate your action. I do not want to shock you, but you do not know everything. You do not do everything perfectly, nor do I. The people who offer you productive criticism are the most valuable people in your life because they want you to become a better person. It is not easy to do but respect their honesty.

In the scripture lesson for today, Peter didn’t run from the criticism. He didn’t ignore the criticism. Peter embraced the criticism and reminded himself that what he did was right! You may not be perfect, but there are times when you did the right thing!

This was not the first time Peter was criticized. You remember the story. Peter once told Jesus he would never betray him, yet a short time later Peter did three times (John 18:15-27). He must have regretted those words. When the resurrected Jesus came back, he looked for Peter and reminded him of his betrayal. The Master reinstates Peter by asking him the same question three times, “Do you love me?” Each time Peter responded, “You know I love you” (John 21). For Peter, that must have been an emotional day. Yet, that wasn’t the end of Peter. He learned from that experience and moved forward. We never hear about his betrayal again. Are you stuck in the past, remembering that day you were criticized? You should learn from your criticisms, but you should never dwell on them. Just forget about it and move forward.

In the spring of 1989, I was interviewed to be the pastor of the Hathaway United Methodist Church in Garfield Heights, Ohio. I remember next to nothing about that interview, except the greatest challenge facing that church. It was a stagnant, aging congregation. They were hoping to rebuild their congregation. (Does that sound familiar? It sounds like every congregation in the mainline Protestant world.) Over the next five years, we experienced some success.

Hathaway is now closed. During my time there, I learned why they hadn’t grown in decades. It had nothing to do with demographics. However, the community was predominantly retired Catholics. Hathaway didn’t grow for the same reason most churches don’t grow. A small group had seized control and smothered any new life. The small group does not mean to be controlling. Usually, they are sincere people who believe they know what is best for the whole. Sometimes, the controlling group includes the pastor. Sometimes, it does not. In Hathaway’s case, the pastor had very little control. The controlling group was one family. They ruled by intimidation. That family consisted of two generations. There was the father and mother, Paul and Gladys. They had two adult sons, Jim, who can best be described as a “junkyard dog”, and Paul, who was a nice guy. They had two wives, Cindy, and Judy. The six of them dominated ever committee within the life the church. If that church was ever going to grow, then the six had to be dethroned from power. I only had one thing going for me. I was the chair of the nominating committee. In my first two years in that parish, I nominated anyone who wasn’t afraid of the six. The six were not stupid. They knew what I was doing. They confronted me in every way to hold on to the power. One thing was clear. The church had to choose between them and me. Without the support of other church members, I would have been gone. One man named Dick made it possible for me to stay. My last three years in Garfield Heights were wonderful, because the six were gone. They left with a pile of ugly words pointed at me. They wrote those words down and sent them to the church’s administrative board, my District Superintendent, and the bishop. I never heard from the District Superintendent or the Bishop. However, the board chair called me, and we met. Alone, he read me the letter with the ugly words. In colorful language, they said, I was the problem because I was suffering from mental illness. He asked me if I wanted to respond. I did. I said, “Maybe they are right? They are not the first to think I am crazy.” We laughed and the topic never came up again.

Let me end this blog with three questions.

Question #1: Have you ever been criticized? The answer is yes. You might as well admit it. Everyone has been criticized. If you don’t want to be criticized, then do nothing at all. Then, people will criticize you for doing nothing. Being criticized is just part of life.

Question #2: How do you handle criticism? You only have two options. Either you can ignore it, or you can embrace it. Dismiss the criticism that comes from fools or people who have an agenda. Embrace the criticisms that come from people who are trying to make you a better person.

Question #3: How long do you hold on to criticism? I hope not long. The best criticisms are designed to improve your life, not damage it. This is the day the Lord has made, rejoice and be glad in it. Norman Vincent Peale (1899-1993) once said, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Worth the Risk

His name is Felix Baumgartner (born 1969). His is an Austrian born skydiver. On October 14, 2012, he roared twenty-four miles up in a helium balloon. He found the place where space begins. Do you remember what happened? The video clip was shown countless times. He jumped out of his balloon and drifted down to the surface of the earth safely. Along the way he became the first person to break the sound barrier without vehicular power. I knew he would be safe because the whole thing was sponsored by energy drink company, Red Bull. Can I ask you a question? Do you consider Felix a hero? Do you consider Felix a fool? We can all agree on the fact that he is a risk taker. Here is a question you must answer. How great of a risk are you willing to take for God? That leads us to the scripture lesson for today.

We are in the third chapter of Acts, verses one through ten. According to the text, Peter and John are on their way to the temple to pray at 3:00 in the afternoon. It is unusual for us to show up at church for pray in the middle of the afternoon, but it was not unusual for them. The devout came at scripted times. They came at 9:00 in the morning. They came at 3:00 in the afternoon. They came at sunset. The Hebrew faith has always valued prayer.

As the devout came, they saw the usual cast of characters lining the street, the beggars. Most did not come by their own power. They were placed there by their loved ones, who knew of the generosity of the religious. After all, how can you worship God and ignore the needy of this world? Each one of the beggars had their own spot and story. Some were begging because of some physical limitation. They were blind, lame, or deaf. Some were begging because of an accident or a disease. Some were begging because they were simply too old to work. It was quite a crowd. The only thing they had in common was poverty. They sat there begging because they had nowhere else to go. They were the lowest of the low in their society. They were a sea of hopelessness. Everyone had pity on them, but no one would have traded places with them.

According to the text, as Peter was nearing the temple, he does something unexpected. In the middle of that sea of hopelessness, Peter picked out one man. I do not know why that man. Perhaps, he had been there the longest? The text tells us he had been lame from birth. Perhaps, his voice was the loudest or the most annoying? Perhaps, he was the most pitiful? Or perhaps, the man just got lucky? The man just happened to be at the right place at the right time. He just happened to be there when Peter mustered enough courage to try something new. That was Peter’s first miracle. It is always hard to do something for the first time. What happens if he calls on the name of Jesus to heal the man and nothing happens? The more I have wrestled with this text, the more I am convinced Peter was a risk taker. Are you a risk taker? I hope you are, because you are never going to make a difference in this world playing it safe. Let me ask you two questions. Both are extremely practical.

First, how much of your personal pride are you willing to risk serving God? There are no guarantees in the ministry. In the history of the church, we have known great success and we have known great failure. When was the last time you were part of a ministry that failed? The feeling never goes away. When ministries fail egos are damaged and people never forget. However, the worst thing is there is nothing we can do. Are you willing to be a risk taker for Jesus or are you happy playing it safe? Helen Keller (1880-1968) once said, “Life is either a wild adventure or it is nothing at all.” Are you willing to risk your personal pride serving God?

Listen to this list of names:

  1. Bill Gates
  2. Abraham Lincoln
  3. Isaac Newton
  4. Ludwig van Beethoven
  5. Frank Woolworth
  6. Walt Disney
  7. Thomas Edison
  8. Winston Churchill
  9. Henry Ford
  10.  Albert Einstein

Each one these individuals knew great success. Each one of these individuals also experienced failure. I can give you a story of failure about each one. For example, Thomas Edison’s (1847-1931) teacher once told him me was too stupid to learn. I respect each name on the list because they worked through their individual failures.

I love this story because Peter lays everything on the line. Verse six says, “Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” It is one thing to say the words. It is another thing to have a miracle flow through you. I don’t care how you turn the story. Peter was risking his personal pride. What would have happened if the man wasn’t healed? Peter would have looked like a fool. How foolish are you willing to look for Jesus? Are you willing to risk your personal pride?

Second, how much of your personal security are you willing to risk serving God? It isn’t just true of Peter. It is true of us. We live in a sea of hopelessness. Our world is filled with hurting people. God expects us to help them. They are not going to come to us. We are going to have to go to them. God expects us to meet them. God expects us to interact with them. God expects us to get emotionally involved with them. That is the difference between missions and charity. Yes, there is an element of risk. Are you willing to risk your personal security?

During my time in the ministry, my wife Katheryn and I have visited the former Soviet Union over two dozen times to help unadoptable orphans. In December of 2011, Kathryn and I were getting ready to travel back to Russia. We were traveling to an orphanage we had visited in the past, the Renewal Orphanage in Dmitrov. We were excited about that trip because our youngest daughter, Anna, was going. It was her first trip, and she was a little apprehensive. I couldn’t blame her. She had never done anything like this in the past. She had seen a mountain of pictures from previous trips but going was different. Anna has always tried to hide her emotions, so she was not always easy to read. That is why when she came home from school just a few days before we left upset, I was surprised. I said, “Anna, what is wrong?” She responded, “Someone asked me if my will was up to date. You may need it if you are going to Russia.” She asked for the first time, “Dad, are we going to be safe?” I said, “Yes! Do you really think I would put you in danger?”

Have you ever noticed how many cowards there are in this world? You know it is true. You don’t have to travel out of the country. Just try to do something in the name of Jesus. Annually, my church sent teenagers on domestic youth mission trips. They went everywhere. Annually, someone will tell me it isn’t a good idea because the highways are dangerous. Try to help people in the city and people will try to discourage you by quoting some crime report. Try to save the souls of the incarcerated and people will wonder about your sanity. Have you ever tried to discourage someone from doing something in the name of Jesus? Could it be our pews are filled with cowards?

Are you willing to risk your personal security? Just think about it for a moment. In the text, the group that was responsible for killing Jesus was still in power. They had the authority to kill anyone who supported Jesus. Peter healed this man in the name of Jesus. He was aligning himself with Jesus and putting himself in danger. You can say a great deal about Peter, but you can’t call him a coward. Do you consider yourself a coward? Are you willing to risk your personal pride? Are you willing to risk your personal security?

I love this old story. A clergyman from New York called on Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) at the White House during the darkest days of the Civil War. He said: “I have not come to ask any favors of you, Mr. President; I have only come to say that the loyal people of the North are sustaining you and will continue to do so. We are giving you all that we have, the lives of our sons as well as our confidence and our prayers. You must know that no boy’s father or mother ever kneels in prayer these days without asking God to give you strength and wisdom.” Lincoln was moved by his words. He replied, “But for those prayers, I should have faltered and perhaps failed long ago. Tell every father and mother you know to keep on praying, and I will keep on fighting, for I know God is on our side.” As the clergyman started to leave the room, Mr. Lincoln held him by the hands and said: “May I consider this a pastoral call?” “Yes,” replied the clergyman. “Out in the country,” replied Lincoln, “when a parson makes a pastoral call, it was always the custom for the folks to ask him to lead in prayer, and I should like to ask you to pray with me today. Pray that I may have the strength and the wisdom.” The two men knelt side by side, and the clergyman offered the most fervent plea to Almighty God that ever fell from his lips. As they arose, the President clasped his visitor’s hand and remarked in a satisfied sort of way: “I feel better.”

I love that story because it humanizes one of the great figures in American history.

I don’t care if you are president of the United States or a common citizen, we all need prayer. If you are going to make a difference for Jesus in this world, then you better collect as many prayers as possible. It is not easy risking your personal pride. Sometimes we fail. It is not easy risking personal security. There is a sea of hopelessness out there. It is not easy serving in the name of Jesus, but it is worth the risk. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) once said, “A ship is always safe at the shore – but that is NOT what it was built for.” Neither are you!